Image for The Gathering Pod A Martha Beck Podcast Episode #110 How to Let the Light In
About this episode

This week, Martha talks about the paradox of imperfection: trying our hardest to do our best while still accepting that we will always make mistakes. This combination of effort and grace lets the light into our lives. Listen in to learn how!


Martha Beck:

How are you everybody? How are the peoples? It’s so good to see you. I have been having so much fun and so much anguish lately, but not anguish of any kind you should worry about. I’ll tell you all about it. So I’m writing a book about how to reduce anxiety, yes? Part of reducing anxiety is that you activate creativity. In order to be in integrity, see my last book, I feel that I have to live the things that I suggest for other people. So I’ve been doing creativity and I decided that I would get up every day and I would draw or paint for a while because as a kid, I drew and painted, I drew and painted, I drew and painted. I had a bit of a fear, I have to tell you. That’s a very useful phrase by the way. In our family, if you get a fear, you say, “Wait, I have a fear,” and the fear could be anything. I’m afraid that when you smile that way, you’re really just trying to tell me I’m not good enough or whatever it is.

Anyway, I had a fear, and the fear was that if I started drawing and painting, it would be like opening Pandora’s Box because there was something that made me paint and draw, and it wasn’t like demons, but it’s very, very intense for me as a kid. So I had stopped drawing as a responsible adult except when I wanted to put something on the wall or do something for a special project. But I decided I was going to draw and paint the way I did as a kid just for fun every day. So I was absolutely right. I was proven right. I got up every day. I started getting really obsessive, like drawing for hours and hours and hours at a time. I started getting up at 04:00 in the morning. I couldn’t really sleep. I slept this morning, but until, I think I probably said this last week because it’s been going on for weeks now.

Anyway, what possessed me was something called the rage to master, which is a term that they use for kids trying to learn to do something like ride a bike or talk or whatever, and if you’re really, really trying hard to learn a skill and you have the rage to master, there’s this weird compulsive sensation, and there’s also the feeling that you can’t get it right, you can’t get it right. So I didn’t have any anxiety. It’s different from the rage to master, but I did end up sitting across from Ro in a restaurant in Manhattan. She asked me why I needed to keep painting since I seemed so upset about the whole thing. Enraged. I couldn’t get it right. So I began weeping copiously and accidentally throwing silverware, and the waiting staff didn’t even know what was happening to me. I think they might have called an ambulance at one point. It was pretty ugly.

But what I had was just a case of the rage to master, and it came from the fact that I knew images I wanted to create and I wasn’t able to create them but I was trying and I was trying hard. So if you ever decide to do something you really love and it’s really hard and you really want to do it well, you may come down with the rage to master as well, and sometimes I think we feel that way about life. I mean, this is a spiritual gathering. I think sometimes we feel like I’m trying to get life right, I’m trying to get my world, my soul, my heart right, and I just keep slipping. I can’t keep a schedule, I can’t reach divine or zen contentment, I just can’t get it. Sort of the human condition.

So one of the things that I did to accompany myself was that I turned on some Leonard Cohen. Loves me some Leonard Cohen. Thanks Roey for introducing me to Leonard Cohen. And I heard a song of his called Anthem, and you may know this song and the words are so perfect. And as I was sitting there painting away, drawing, doing really bad paintings, just one after the other, I heard this song and I love the way it goes. It starts, “The birds they sing at the break of day. ‘Start again,’ I hear them say. Do not dwell on what has passed away or what is yet to be. Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

And my whole soul sort of flooded with this song and I remembered that Leonard Cohen, he was singing this in his 80s and the reason he was singing in his 80s was he was broke. He had to go touring in his 80s because he couldn’t stay solvent. And he never actually wanted to be a songwriter. He wanted to be a novelist and he would write songs on… It was one of those weird things, like I never meant to be a writer. People try really hard to be a writer and I’m like, oh, I never wanted to be a writer, but people keep paying me to do it so whatever. And that’s how he was with singing. Plus, at 80, he never had the greatest voice, let’s just say it. And at 80, it’s kind of like listening to a bear hyperventilating. It’s not dulcet golden tones. It’s this man growling about you might as well forget your perfect offering because everything’s cracked and it’s beautiful.

And I started to realize that the process of creativity that had been driving me, the rage to master, is tolerable for me, not just in art but in everything, if I observe, if I take in that philosophy. So I wanted to pass it along to you. And I have some, I boiled down some bullet points because I loves me a bullet point as well because I never wanted to do any kind of self-help, but people keep paying me to do it. You’re not paying me to do it. Anyway, that’s why I do this. So I just thought, all right, here’s how to move forward in your life, getting better at something, really studying to be a better person in something, in parenting, in spiritual practice, in any art or science you’ve chosen, in your job, whatever it is.

First thing is that the birds, every single morning, say, “Start again.” Forget what’s passed away. Forget what you did yesterday except to internalize whatever skill you learned by trying and failing. Start again every single day and just know that every single day you’re starting all over again. One of the things that made me want to jump off a bridge for a while is that I decided to do transparent watercolor. Transparent watercolor is the bitch from hell. And I say that with great love because you can work for hours on a watercolor and have it all perfect and a drop of water falls on it or you put down the wrong pigment in the wrong place and it is over baby. No erasing. Can’t fix it. It’s like somebody just stabbed it to death and you have to throw it away and start again.

So I’ve been doing the same paintings over and over and over and over and over, trying to get them better, trying not to ruin them, and I always would ruin them in new ways. And then I just started getting up every day and saying, “Of course I’m starting again. I’m starting again,” instead of thinking, “Oh, I worked so hard on that one. I need to get something for what I put in.” Forget what you put in. Just start again. Always be starting, and in Asia, they call this beginner’s mind. Just keep beginner’s mind. In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind, there are few. And so always starting again doesn’t just make you feel better, it opens the whole world. When you know you’re going to start again and again and again and again, you don’t cling to things as much so you don’t need them to work as much. It still kind of stings when you ruin something but if you start again the next moment and you’re in the mode of always starting again, you realize…

You know they say, “It’s not the journey that we’re after, it’s the destination, that’s what life’s all about.” I don’t think it’s… Sorry, “It’s not the destination that it’s all about, it’s the journey.” I don’t think it’s even the journey, because the journey, you remember what you did yesterday and you think about what you’re doing tomorrow. I think it’s really about what you’re doing in this moment. The line I’m putting down now, the wash I’m putting down now, and one thing about watercolor is it’s very active and you have to sort of tend it. It does not stay where you put it. It runs around doing things that it planned by itself, so you have to be incredibly attentive to it. And so it’s become this like every stroke is a new beginning. Everything, every moment with your beloved, every moment of trying to be healthy, every moment of trying to have a strong sense of self-esteem, every moment is what matters. Not the destination, not the journey, just this step. That’s it.

Second thing is, so always be starting out, then intend to fail. Intend to fail but not in the sense that you’re going to just throw in the towel. Intend to shoot so high that it would take all the stars aligning for it to work out. One of my idols is, oh gosh, now I’ve forgotten his name. He’s a Japanese printmaker, the most famous Japanese printmaker in history. I think Ro is looking it up for me. He did that painting of the wave with a boat in it that’s a wood block print of the ocean that is the most reproduced work of art in history.

Kitagawa? No, that’s not his name. Hokusai. Hokusai, that was his name. Hokusai. Anyway, this guy started painting with a brush when he was like no years old. He worked every day as a painter and illustrator his whole life until he was like 96. The paintings he did in his 90s, I don’t think God can paint that well. And he said at 90, “If I just have about 10 more years, I think I’m going to be able to crack this thing. I think I’m going to be able to paint some good things.” He was still failing to achieve what he saw in his own eyes, in his mind’s eye. But boy, oh boy, look up Hokusai’s later paintings. Whoa. Especially if you’ve ever tried to use a brush, it will blow your freaking mind. And still at 90, he was like, “Yeah, it’s not quite what I wanted, but that’s okay.”

So, and I don’t also remember, I think it was Emerson who said, “Do your best, shoot above the mark to hit the mark, and then fail and then start again and fail again, but this time fail better.” So everything is a matter of failing better, and if you set out to fail better and you really push to succeed and you know you’re going to fail, there’s this weird peace that comes into it. It’s almost like a game you’re playing with perfection and perfection is always going to elude you, but it’s fun to chase it. So the thing about working in this way is that instead of the judgment that says, this is bad, this is good, what will people think, you can’t give that as a present, everybody hates you, whatever, the only judgment that comes into your mind when you’re in that moment is either it works or it doesn’t work.

And when you take out not only that you’re a failure, you suck, but you take out you’re a success, you’re amazing, which is just as toxic in the end because then you’re always chasing that, but if you’re just saying, “That works the way I wanted it to,” or “That doesn’t quite work the way I wanted it to,” there’s no emotional value to that. It’s like making fire in the wilderness. You either make fire or you didn’t. It’s not a moral judgment, it’s just that worked, that didn’t. And when you’re trying to parent or, I keep using that because that’s another thing I’m trying to do, or when you’re trying to be a good copywriter or a good mathematician or whatever it is, if you just go with, “It works, it doesn’t work,” instead of, “Oh, this is horrible, everybody hates me,” or, “Oh, this is wonderful, everybody loves me,” peace, peace, peace.

So when you’re thinking about what people will think, you’ll be in hell. When you’re thinking, does it work or doesn’t it work, the right hemisphere of your brain pops open and then you’re suddenly in heaven. And that is when the crack in everything starts to let in the light. You see where the cracks are and you accept them, and it is accepting the cracks in the perfection, the perfect offering you tried to bring, it’s looking at the cracks and saying, “You know what? The cracks can be beautiful, too. I kind of like the way it cracked that time. Is it what I was thinking? No. But I am going to forgive myself for the imperfection of this moment,” and it’s the forgiveness of the imperfection that breaks us open a little bit and that’s when the light comes in.

Weirdly, that’s when we often start to do things we didn’t think we could do. One of the things I noticed is that in the focal point of my paintings where I get really tight, I was making a lot of mistakes and I was throwing away painting after painting. And then I picked one up and I realized that in the background, I had slapped down a few strokes very quickly trying to just register something before I got to the focal point. And the part I hadn’t been focusing on, I really liked. And so I accepted the crack and I was fine with it, and when I went into the painting without trying, because I’d been working so hard and practicing so hard, what I put down carelessly was informed by that whole process.

So it started to become something that I found a little bit beautiful and it’s intoxicating. And that’s the moment when you feel like you’re touching God. That’s the moment when the divine comes through you and that’s what I call fun. It’s amazing. So those are my steps. Always start again, and it’s in the Leonard Cohen song, Anthem. Always start again every day, bring your perfect offering but then forget about the perfection, and then accept that there’s a crack in everything, and let the light come in by accepting that, no matter what it is you’re doing. And you know what? Now I’m excited that I opened up Pandora’s Box, that I opened up the rage to master. I have the rage to master a few things, the rage to master the book I’m writing now, the rage to master being a better life coach, the rage to master being a better teacher, a better business person, a better everything. Because that’s the fun of being human and it’s such a great ride. So let’s look at some of these questions that are coming in.

Someone says, “In my accent, I want to say the rage to Martha.” Please don’t rage at me, but if you do, I will be cracked and that’s how the light gets in. Vale says, “How do you deal with time pressure?” Oh, God, good question. I often put time pressure on myself, that’s one thing I’ve done because one thing I used to do is try to fiddle with something and make it better, make it better, make it better, whether it was a book or a drawing or whatever, and I would just overwork everything and it wouldn’t get better and I would get exhausted. So one of the things I do is I actually set a timer and I’m going to do this painting as well as I can in three hours, soup to nuts.

Same thing when I write. I’ve got an hour, I’m going to try to write this chapter the best I can for an hour, and then I have to abandon my perfectionism. I think about somebody standing there waiting for it, and yes, at first it’s even worse and you get really anxious, but if you just say, “I’m going to go as fast as I can and accept that it won’t be perfect, and here you go,” and let me tell you something, 17 years of writing magazine columns for the Oprah Magazine every single month and I never missed a month that whole time. Even though things were not always easy in my life, I had to meet my deadline more or less. I mean, they were patient with me on many occasions, but I didn’t have weeks of leeway. I had to just throw something out there. And that meant there had to be 1500 words and I would sit there and try to do it.

They’ve done studies showing that people who write just because they sit down to write and they have a schedule versus people who write when they get inspired and they have the open day and the perfect time, they’ve actually had people work in those two different ways and then had their work judged by independent English professors who didn’t know which group was which, and the people who sit down and just grind it out toward a certain deadline, they always write better it turns out. There’s something about the process of just sitting down and making it happen that allows the light to come through those cracks. So time pressure is something that you can work with and turn into a positive, and I urge you to give it a try.

Valley says, “How do I shed the pressures culture places on us to only feel worthy when we succeed? How can we embrace failure when the mere thought of it makes me feel sick? Love from Kenya.” Oh, we all feel this one, boy, oh boy. The culture and cultures all over the world really do push us to be successful by their definition. It’s only when we accept that judgment that we allow ourselves to be made sick by it. I don’t remember who said it, I mean, I’ve heard it attributed to everybody, Eleanor Roosevelt, Frederick Douglas, whatever, but the phrase still stands, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Somebody can tell you you’re bad, but if you do not believe it, you won’t feel bad. So you have to be the definer of your own success. And I redefined success as an artist as making something every day, finishing something every day.

Glennon Doyle, when she started doing her blog, Momastery is what it was called originally, she said her whole thing was just press send every day. She didn’t feel like everything was good enough, she’d just pressed send every day. And now she’s like, this week she and Abby, her partner, her wife, are interviewing Kamala Harris on their podcast. I mean, just because she was sitting in an apartment saying, “I’m going to press send every day.” And you get out there, you fail, and people say you failed, and you go, “Okay, am I going to go on or not? I’m just going to keep pressing send every day.” And over time, you become less sensitive to the cultural pressure. If you just keep reminding yourself, “No, that’s not my standard. That’s a cultural standard that I don’t want to keep. My thing is just press send or to draw for an hour or to do whatever it is once a day, and that is my standard of judgment. It either works or it doesn’t. I do it or I don’t. I don’t have to succeed.” That’s a very important point. Thank you for bringing that up.

Pam Norman, how you doing, dear? She says, “Do you think it’s a matter of getting the conscious mind out of the way? Maybe the mistakes are the higher self’s goal.” I mean, some definitely are, but I think the conscious mind, I think it’s enlarging the conscious mind, not getting it out of the way. I have to be very focused in a very analytical way to write or draw or do anything well, or coach or anything. Literally minutes before I turned on the camera here, I nearly broke my brain trying to imagine in my head exactly how a slant of sunlight falls on a brick façade that has a lot of intricate carving, exactly how the shadows fall so that you can… Yeah, and my brain was breaking and I was doing little sketches of it and it was highly analytical and focused and left brain. But as I absorbed what the sort of geometry of that looks like, and as it gets into my sort of artist’s self, it seems to expand through both sides of my brain.

So now I’m confident that I know that it’s representational and that I can break the rules with confidence and create things that look loose and easy because they’re informed, sorry, cracks in everything, my voice especially. Hang on. Mint. And there are mistakes that can lead to the higher self being able to express itself. But I think it’s when we bring our whole self to the table and where we really want to do something and we really have the rage to master but we’re able to accept failure that the higher self pushes us to the point where the cracks mean something.

That’s another thing that’s really interesting. I did a Gathering Room about this a little while ago. To have brilliant new ideas or breakthroughs in your creativity, it is necessary to reach an impasse. The right side of the brain won’t make brilliant leaps of imagination unless you’re stuck. And to get stuck, you have to work to the place where you don’t know what to do next. So you have to push against that, the limit of what you consciously know, and then the right side of the brain or the subconscious or whatever can blow the walls off and give you a big leap forward. So yeah, when I was teaching art at Harvard, when I was a teaching fellow, I remember one person came in and they’d hand in their portfolios and we were teaching them the rules of perspective and all this stuff that was representational. And then at the end of the year, the professor I was teaching with would let them go crazy and do abstracts and stuff, and they were so much better because they’d had the discipline.

As they say in China, “The way to simplicity lies through complexity.” But one person handed in a portfolio and my job was to go through and look at all the drawings and make notes on every drawing and help them get better. And this one person said, “I came to this class not to learn to draw, but to learn to be comfortable with my total lack of interest or talent in the visual arts.” And they had these little squiggles that a little kid would make. And I was like, “No, nice try. Nice try, wrong class. Take a psychology class for that.” So that person did not have a higher self coming through because they weren’t pushing the limits of the conscious mind. So Pam, thank you for that question. I love it, and I think it’s really intriguing to ask those questions of ourselves.

The Mounting Yoga Studio says, “Does this work in writing? Is it the not focusing and forcing that you create, maybe not what you intend, but what the light wants to show? That is my experience and the experience of my many writer friends.” Absolutely. You sit down, Liz Gilbert was talking to me about it last week. She’s like, “I love writing. I loved writing my last novel. And every day I was like, I don’t want to. I don’t want to start. It’s hard. I’m not sure what I’m doing. I think it’s kind of hard.” And then she’d get into it and start pushing against, I don’t know what to do, maybe I’ll try this, maybe I’ll try that, and at some point, because of all the repetition and the conditioning and the practice, she would find that flow, right hemisphere would start coming through, and the left hemisphere has to be there for language but the two start working together, the room falls away and there is bliss and there is brilliance. It’s a really good novel. I can’t wait till you can read it.

Okay. Yeah. In everything, everything, race car driving, I don’t even know. So Gentle Heart says, “How do I overcome terror and anxiety whilst having curiosity and staying open all at the same time?” I’m not sure you can. You have to give so much attention to your curiosity. You have to not just think, “Oh, I’m curious about this.” You have to actually try to figure it out. So say you have a passing curiosity in how snails mate or something. That is not going to keep your anxiety at bay, sit around going, “I wonder how snails mate.” But if you set out to learn how snails mate, and you could go to books and everything, but especially if you had to go out and find some snails and observe them, during the time you were trying to figure out how to learn this, how to find the snails, how to get them to mate, watch the little pornos or whatever, little snail pornos, very slow, very boring, I assume, I don’t watch them a lot.

Anyway, during the time you were figuring out how to satisfy your curiosity, I’ve been asking people all over the place, “When you are actually creating, are you anxious?” And even people who are highly anxious by nature, when they’re really trying to dig into a question that makes them curious, that requires some of the rage to master… Let me tell you something. I have bad morning anxiety. I had it my whole life. So in recent years, I wake up, I’m like, “Ooh, scary, it’s the day,” and then I meditate and I find my way back and I calm down quickly. Since I started this drawing thing and using the creativity stuff, no anxiety, zero. Got the rage to master, got a bad case of the rage to master. No anxiety whatsoever. It’s been amazing. It totally works. So Gentle Heart, I hope you go out and research whatever makes you happy and figure something out that really matters to you by doing something that is really quite difficult because your anxiety will stop during those times and it’s very nice to have a break from it.

City Lotus says, “If we don’t feel the energy of rage, but more the depletion of defeat, or what’s the point, how can we motivate to engage the project in the moment?” It’s not exactly rage like I want to kill you sort of rage. The rage to master is something that springs from inside and you see it with little children and you see it with people who are learning a skill that excites them, that interests them. It’s a measure of your own unique personality, what gives you the rage master. And the rage master is just, I want to learn to do that. And I remember reading about this woman who was like 50 and she was having a midlife crisis and she was crossing a bridge in Boston and she looked down and there was a woman rowing in a one rower shell. And her whole heart exploded, and she’s just like, “I have to learn to do that.” And she started to row and it changed her whole life. You can’t explain why that happens. If you’re depressed, it won’t happen.

During the times that I’ve been depressed in my life and then when I’m dealing with clients and friends who are depressed, think about it this way, just pronounce it deep rest. Deep rest. When you’re grieving, when you’re dealing with a trauma, when your attention should be inward, you won’t want to master an outward skill, but you will in some ways feel that push to find your way through the darkness, to find your way through the pain. So I guess I kind of had the rage to master that sent me to find out why I was always sad when I was in my 20s, for example. So if you’re depleted, rest, and then when you’ve rested enough, the rage to master will come when you just look at something and go, “Oh, I like that. I want to do that.” And you’ll know you’re out of the woods and you have some fun ahead of you.

Finally, Alyssa says, “How do you know when it’s time to quit something too, after doing it again and again? When is it time to stop the effort?” I think when you’re bored with it, when you’re tired of it, when your inner compass says, “No.” I keep doing this different paintings of the same street in New York City, just different lights, different weather, usually around the same spot. I just always take photos of this one spot on Broadway in New York, and I just have the rage to master that particular street. I want to learn to represent it. And I keep saying, “Okay, that’s done. There’s no reason to keep going.” And then I’m like, “I really want to paint that street again.” And that’s how I know it’s time to start again.

The birds say it every day, “Start again. Do not dwell on what is passed away or what is yet to be. Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” You guys get into my house through cracks in the cement through which come wires bringing electricity and computer things. And I am so grateful for the light you bring into my life both literally and spiritually and metaphorically. Thank you for coming to The Gathering Room. I can’t wait to see you again here and have a wonderful week doing things imperfectly. See you then. Bye.

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